Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel The Jungle told the morbid story of immigrants in the meat packing industry in industrial cities. The book decried the ills of industrialization – rampant health violations and horrific working conditions in food processing plants. In the last half century, meatpacking plants have slowly migrated from crowded cities to sparely populated towns in the South and Midwest. The motivation, presumably, is to allow the firms to take advantage of the proximity to local livestock and thereby reduce transportation costs. Yet suspicions of ulterior motives on the part of the meatpacking industry are not outlandish: firms benefit from the low prevailing wages in rural areas and the lack of enforcement that might prevent immigrant employee abuse. This blogpost outlines reasons why the horrors of the meatpacking industry are exacerbated when plants are located in rural areas.
We begin with the issue of market competition. Typically, an agricultural processing facility in a rural town is the only major source of employment for the area. A single chicken plant may be the only job source for miles around. In a metropolitan area, the proliferation of jobs and workers are more empowered to demand better wages and working conditions because there are other employers to compete for the labor market. This is not the case with meatpackers in rural towns. The industry is heavily concentrated. There are no rival meatpacking firms in general to compete and incentivize good employment standards. This is particularly the case in rural areas, where there may not be rival employers period. Where a firm is the only one on the block, it has the power to set substandard or even illegal working conditions.
Next, consider the demographic that works for meatpacking firms: immigrants have traditionally supported the industry. It seems that common sense would bind us in agreement that immigrants do not come to the US with the dream of shearing chicken flesh all day. Immigrants end up working at meatpacking plants because their illegal status does not allow them access to higher-paying and more desirable positions. They have usually fled countries where job opportunities and working conditions are even worse than in a United States food processing plant. In short, immigrants are more likely to accept abuse and illegal wages. Their basis for comparison is low, and motivation to make a living extremely high.
How does the rural location of the meatpacking industry make abuse of immigrants even more egregious than what Upton Sinclair revealed more than a century agon? The tale of meatpacking and processing’s move into rural communities has a plot twist- the local citizen communities in which the facilities are locate often fear and resent the influx of immigrant workers. If recent trends in the US census are any indication, illegal workers will continue to move to rural parts of the country. The immigrants follow industries that want to take advantage, I argue, of the fact that white Americans in rural areas will turn a blind eye to the employment abuse of illegal workers.
In a large city like Chicago, 300 illegal workers at a plant might go unnoticed in the vast population pool. In a rural area, immigrant workers attracted by a new plant could completely change the demographic of the town. This fact is met with resistance and fear. Common perceptions hold that immigrants are not warmly welcomed in rural America. Sure, there are shining examples of communities that embrace arriving immigrants, but in general, illegal workers face prejudice in rural American. They are accused of taking local jobs, of taxing public benefit programs. This is at the crux of why meatpacking’s move into rural America has exacerbated the horrors of the industry. The immigrant workforce is subject to abuse at work and to a lack of community support to challenge illegal employment practices.
Where are the lawyers, the agency enforcement officers, the community activists to decry the abuse of immigrants? That’s just it: in rural communities, there are less advocates to argue for the rights of immigrants. Upton Sinclair was able to unearth the injustices in 1905 because, at that time, the meat factories were located in the big cities. The abuses were literally right next door to him. He was a talented journalist in a large city with access to a printing press. In contrast, no large media outlets are in rural areas, few passionate social justice advocates.
Meatpacking plants know that they have a safe hiding place (ironically) right out in the wide open countryside of rural America.